Indian police raided the office of a news portal and the homes of journalists and writers linked to it on Tuesday as part of an investigation into suspected illegal foreign funding of the media company, two government officials said.
The raid is deepening concerns over a crackdown in a country where media freedom has nosedived.
Laptops and mobile phones were taken away as part of the investigation into the media company NewsClick, the officials and some of the journalists said.
“A special investigations team launched a search operation to identify all those individuals who were possibly getting funds from overseas to run a media group with the main agenda of spreading foreign propaganda,” said an official in the interior ministry overseeing the raids by the Delhi Police.
The raids were part of an investigation by the Enforcement Directorate, India’s financial crime agency, into suspected money laundering by NewsClick, the official said.
Another ministry official said the raids were conducted at more than a dozen homes of journalists and some other writers linked to NewsClick.
“We have not arrested anyone and the search operations are still under way,” the second official said.
Both of the officials declined to be identified as they are not authorised to speak to the media.
The New York Times in August reported that NewsClick was financed by US millionaire Neville Roy Singham, who it said “sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points” – claims Singham rejected.
Prabir Purkayastha, the founder of NewsClick said at the time the allegations were not new and the organisation would respond to them in court.
The Network of Women in Media in India said Tuesday’s “shocking” raids had targeted “prominent voices of dissent”.
Those raided include founding editor Prabir Purkayastha, journalists Aunindyo Chakravarty, Bhasha Singh and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, as well as satirist Sanjay Rajoura and activist Teesta Setalvad, Indian media reported.
The Mumbai Press Club expressed its “deep concern” at the raids in a statement, reporting that “multiple journalists affiliated with NewsClick have been subjected to raids”.
Journalist Aritry Das said police “barged into my home” at dawn, questioned her about her reporting and seized her laptop, phone and computer hard disks, she wrote on social media.
The Press Club demanded the police stop “from what is perceived as a targeted harassment campaign against these journalists”.
Also raided in connection to NewsClick was historian and activist Sohail Hashmi.
“From the warrant that they reluctantly showed me, the raid at my residence was related to an investigation into NewsClick,” Hashmi said.
Hashmi had to hand over his laptop, phone and hard disks containing more than a decade of his writing, calling the raid a “combination of intimidation and a crackdown on freedom of press and speech”.
There was no immediate response from the police, with raids carried out in both the capital New Delhi and in Mumbai.
India has fallen to 150th in the World Press Freedom Index, an annual ranking by non-profit Reporters Without Borders, from 140th last year, its lowest ever.
Journalists critical of the government complain of increased harassment, both on social media – where Modi’s ruling party has a powerful presence – and in the real world.
Critics say Modi’s government has sought to pressure rights groups by heavily scrutinising their finances and clamping down on foreign funding.